I’d say that there is currently at least one generation of professional cyclists who will only ever have raced on carbon frames. There’s also an increasing number of sporting cyclists who will never ride a steel or aluminium bike in their cycling lifetimes. Nowadays, you see, carbon fibre is king. Riders like carbon. It’s Formula 1, it’s cutting edge and everybody knows that it’s the best; it’s the lightest, stiffest, most responsive material known to man.
Carbon, you see, has the bragging rights. Steel hand-me-downs are now the reserve of the collector rather than the up and coming future champion. So when the idea of building a brand new professional development team around a steel bike was mentioned, there was a group of us in the 1 offices who raised a collective eyebrow.
Genesis is a well known brand among the hardcore of British club cyclists – steel road bikes on a budget and good ones at that – but they are miles away from being a marque that will be recognised on the road racing circuit, even at an amateur level. So to say that this is a brave step is like saying that Hinckley Town have a stab at winning the Champions League.
But Genesis have big ambitions and, as chief designer Dominic Thomas explained to me when I asked him if they were serious, the premise with this team is simple. “Steel is what we do, so the team will ride steel.”
We arranged to meet, and once I’d put the phone down my mind drifted back to the summer of 1986 and to time trialling at my local club ten on a Wednesday evening. This ritualistic event was always a bizarre scene – 30 or so cyclists in various states of fitness and undress on the hard shoulder of the A46 just outside Six Hills, preparing themselves for a ten mile slog up and down a dual carriageway. To the passing lorry drivers and car commuters it must have appeared odd to say the least. Looking back it was utter madness.
But I wasn’t recalling road safety issues. Instead I was remembering one particular summer’s night when a radically new bike landed in our midst. In those days we rode what we had and most of the machinery was basic, so new bikes were big news. That day at the startline we all stood around one particular fresh arrival like a bunch of kids surrounding something that had washed up on a beach – I was half expecting someone to say “get a stick”.
The machine in question was a Kirk Precision leant up against the bonnet of an Austin Allegro. The car belonged to one of the timekeepers and as we dumped out kit bags into the boot and shuffled away to pin on numbers and drink our Isostar, this new magnesium-moulded marvel stuck firmly in my mind. Kirk bikes were so radically new that we didn’t have a clue what they were made from, where, or by whom. The whole thing was a puzzle. Unperturbed, and in true cycling fashion, we just made it up.
It seemed so futuristic with its monocoque architectural structure and the rumours that flew around reflected this… from Nasa-designed, to made in Russia; Canadian was a popular notion, or Australian… and the Kirk name sounded great too, especially with Star Trek repeats still running on the TV.
This was space age stuff. Before the days of technical pages in magazines and countless blogs detailing manufacturing gossip, making it up was about all you could do, at least until you heard differently. A couple of weeks later Steve Poulter appeared on the cover of ‘the comic’ – Cycling Weekly – winning a race on the Kirk and the pieces started falling into place. Unfortunately for Kirk, their frames started falling to pieces…
Before the warranties had beaten them into submission, Kirk managed to sign with continental outfit TVM for a season. They had a headline team in the UK too, unfortunately with too many basic teething problems. It was an okay design, certainly different, but the disastrous manufacturing problems caught up with the marketing spin and within a couple of years Kirk were history. Kirk’s is a complicated, tragic story spread over a very short time in cycling folklore, so forgive me if we come back to it in another issue (and if Frank Kirk is reading, please do get in touch).
However the juxtaposition with the Austin Allegro was perfect: two British designs, made in Britain, that impressed for about five minutes and then fizzled out like a damp firework. The fundamental flaw with Kirk was you can’t really beat tubes and triangles for making bike frames. As for the Austin Allegro, well, it was just plain ugly.
Raleigh, Cannondale, Cervélo and BMC have all had notable teams launched in their own names, so assembling a bike team around a bike company is certainly not a new idea – and it’s a great one if you want to sell more bikes. Assembling a bike team based around a specific bike isn’t necessarily new either, though Kirk’s team in the UK is one of the only examples I can recall. But what will make the Genesis story very different and difficult is that steel is old, flexible, heavy and retrograde. It’s a step backwards, isn’t it?
Dominic pitched the bike to his management team in May 2011. They liked the idea of a road race-quality stainless steel frame for Genesis because it was something only bespoke builders had attempted to date. Crucially there was nobody doing a strictly off the peg racing frame and this was something Dom thought they could achieve, once they’d got the materials right.
“Steel is tough and 953 stainless is hard as nails, so there’s not a vast amount you can do to alter the standard tube and that’s the limiting factor. Obviously with Ti, carbon and aluminium you have a pretty broad scope in regard to shaping the tubing, although in many cases this is purely for aesthetics. But I kind of like [the shaping limitations with steel] because the aesthetic of Genesis bikes is to keep things simple and functional: a clean frame made in two triangles and from tubes.
“There’s nothing groundbreaking here, we ride steel bikes and like them; but they are not for racing really, they are heavy and when you get out of the saddle they can move around, so we had to look at something ‘new’. Which is where the concept for the team bike came from.”
Dominic e-mailed me his specification notes for the frame. He wanted to push the latest stainless tube technology and at the bottom of the document was an important bullet point: “Depends entirely on co-operation of Reynolds to produce the desired tubing.” Reynolds tubing it is then, and off we went to see them.
We arrived to tour the factory with a film crew, Genesis brand manager Albert Steward, Dominic, press officer Chris Snook and ex-professional and Genesis team manager Roger Hammond.
In issue 15 of this magazine we profiled this sleeping giant of the tubing world and it’s worth a review, but needless to say Reynolds is one of the UK’s most recognised cycling brands and a household name in the world of engineering. They’ve made tubes for Spitfires, Nasa, land speed records, Moto GP motorcycle frames, golf clubs and of course bicycles.
Our guide was to be Reynolds head man Keith Noronha, an engineer with perhaps the most infectious enthusiasm for bicycle frames I have ever encountered. Back in 2009 when I last spoke to him, steel was starting to creep back into the market. Since then things have obviously moved on again, so much so that the first thing we discuss is marketing.
“I talk to our guys here and tell them don’t forget we are in the fashion business. Reynolds has been around so long and steel was the only easily available alloy to all industry including the car industry for a long time. The point is with 853 we were fine for a while between ’83 and ’95 – and in fact LeMond was one of our most successful road bike ranges for a long time – then suddenly this ‘new’ aluminium material comes in and steel looks old fashioned.
“I can remember 6061 and 7005 alloys coming in and they have been used, and still are, in aviation in a big way. 853 sales absolutely plummeted when 6061 and 7005 came into cycling. The price point for a frame in 6061 went way above that of an 853 frame and basically we couldn’t make any money. We were late getting into that alloy party anyway and we did team up in the end with a Taiwanese company.
“I wouldn’t knock aluminium but the point was it seemed to be the new great material, so for several years it took over. Then carbon comes in, aluminium goes. I’m not saying steel will re-replace carbon but I think steel has its place if properly designed. I don’t personally think we’ll make a steel frame as light as a carbon frame but I do believe from a practical point of view, in terms of ride quality, longevity, durability, there are areas where [steel is superior].
“We are seeing frame buyers at the NAHBS and it seems to be the case – I don’t want to be unfair to carbon – that because fashion changes, they feel that if they buy a carbon bike it will fall out of fashion in five years. But a classic shape that’s going to be there a long time, it could be a lot of money for some of these guys, but they see it as an investment.
"It’s reinforced if they’ve had a 531 or 753 from 30-odd years ago and they think it’s still a bike they’d be happy to ride. I think that’s going to be part of what we’re going to see here, that they’ve justified to themselves that this could be here for a long time.”
I put it to Keith that Reynolds have been a bit left behind in the past 20 years. This is an ideal opportunity to start to remarket the Reynolds name and exploit a racing situation once more, rather than being at a very niche end of the handbuilding market. Something will have to drastically change if they are to regain market share.
“I agree with you. We’ve owned the company for 12 years; it’s a privately owned company now. So our budgets are far less than they used to be under the TI Group and, of course, the TI–Raleigh team days and all that, at one stage Reynolds could even afford to sponsor the lead car in the Tour de France.
“Those were their heydays. I know in my own mind, with what I see in engineering and the way the world has gone, we are not going to see volume manufacture return to the UK but specialist manufacture we definitely will. It was a deliberate decision, although a number of times we thought we’d lost it: do we manufacture in the UK? But that makes sense again in certain business streams.
“So I’m glad we hung on long enough to see some of the upturn there. But I’d be the first to say there is a place for steel bikes in that whole picture. We are recognised because obviously when we worked with brands like LeMond, they had a pretty big budget. Some of the numbers there were astronomical, even for Reynolds in the old days.”
But did you think you’d see the day that a racing team was back on steel?
“It’s a fair question. It’s a bit like asking: would you drive a Morgan over a Porsche? We had to have the ability to use a much stronger alloy which could be co-worked and shaped. I would still say I’m obviously very pleased that Genesis are pushing the boat out with steel but one thing I would say is, I’m an older rider but the number of people I’ve heard saying they ride steel…
“The sportives for me is a very good example, but how can you get the rider to feel they are not riding a bike from 40 years ago? I’m using a modern equivalent which combines the technology that’s available now and gives me the ride that I want. And to me that’s what this is about.”
But this team isn’t intended as a sportive riding set up, it’s a racing team.
Roger Hammond is lined up to be team manager of Genesis. Unusually for a DS his experience in racing is matched by a great knowledge of materials and bicycle technology. Fittingly he has a history with Reynolds too. As a local he is fully aware of the company’s significance in the cycling world and he was here in 1992 on placement while studying for a degree in engineering. It was during that time he found himself preparing for the junior cyclo-cross World Championships.
“Reynolds rushed me over two sets of 753s which were built up two weeks before I won the World Championships. So it’s a kind of déjà vu for me. But it’s moved up to the next level. What I like is there are these guys who have got these steel bikes from about 40 years ago and they can relate to their bike, it’s grown old with them.
“But people still want something from the next generation. If they are offered that next generation and can see how that product improved over the years – I think those guys aren’t fashion people but they still want to keep up with advances in engineering.
“I relate the story of my first crash with a carbon fibre bike,” Hammond continues. “Coming down a mountain, turning left into a crash, slamming down my brakes as hard as possible, the frame snapped in half down the middle! I went back and did a little bit of failure analysis – I didn’t really know much about carbon fibre because in those days, it was new-fangled and nobody really knew much about it. But I was always interested in what destructive and non-destructive testing they did.
“The other thing about steel is you can go out and buy a frame from the lower ranges but it is still good quality. You can go and buy a top end carbon bike and it’s very nice, but buy a crap carbon bike and you’re actually risking your life. And that’s what I like about steel: you’ve got so much history to rely on, it’s predictable. I mean, carbon fibre is much, much better now, but steel is much more adaptable. I doubt you’re going to roll out on a carbon fibre bike 30 years after you bought it…”
Genesis realise that development of a carbon bike is something that they are unable to do (they’re also unwilling). But that seems to be an advantage too, and an advantage that they may have over the more expensive side of steel bike making.
Keith explains they have to blend mass production techniques with steel tubed frames for a realistic result. “And that’s part of the fine tuning with steel. It’s worth remembering TIG welding particularly has given framebuilders a new lease of life.
“Imagine the quantity of tubesets a framebuilder would need when constructing a frame with lugs. And they would be standardised sets. Effectively all the same combination of tubes. Once you get to TIG welding you have this ability to change the angle, change the profile; you’re not stuck with a particular lug set that somebody made for it. I think it’s both good and bad, in that it’s opened up a lot of options, but you need to know that it works.”
Dominic is all too aware that, with steel, they will have a much more flexible approach to fitting bikes to riders, mainly because – as Roger was keen to remind us – standard stock carbon frames are what the pros are given to use, even if they don’t fit exactly.
So this could be a welcome step back to having custom frames for professional riders with specific requirements. Genesis aren’t trying to go head to head with custom framebuilders as such, but it’s still something that will be possible.
The challenge for Dominic and Genesis is making the frame affordable and readily available – something that has been somewhat hit and miss with stainless bikes to date – and changing a mindset in racing circles. He freely admits that they will have to stiffen things up a bit.
“Our steel road bike that we already do, it’s always well reviewed and it sells very well but it’s very much a sportive bike or a winter road bike.
“The overall thing we’re trying to get from this frame is stiffness. You have to work with the limitations of the material and the limitation of what can be done with it and what can be done with mass production. Can we do this with the material, can you make it this shape and this size, can you ovalise it? It’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing.
“For example, it’s a bigger downtube than most people would use – 36.4 mm isn’t really a standard sized steel tube, so they just didn’t have the tools to ovalise it. You can’t afford to make that tool either whereas at this point, even without me asking, Keith had already e-mailed saying we will ovalise these tubes for you – it’s kind of a back and forth thing – we can do this, we can’t do that.
“So for example the top tube I wanted to fully ovalise for stiffness, but we’ve had to half ovalise the top tube for some comfort as well. So half the tube will be round and half will be ovalised. It will be a gradual thing – you won’t notice it massively – but again it’s a sacrifice. It’s combining all these things and thinking, well, if we do this here, is it going to be sacrificed somewhere else, until you’re happy with the overall package?
“Especially with steel, because of the nature of the material – how strong it is – it can’t be massively formed like an alloy, so really what you’re doing is relying on a careful selection of tube sizes, tube diameters and wall thicknesses to get the ride that you want. Which, to be honest, we won’t be able to tell until everyone’s got out there on it.
“The two starting points we knew we wanted to work with were a tapered headtube – for stiffness of the front end, how it controls, no wallowing in the steering, so we wanted a 44mm headtube at the front – and the other thing we knew we wanted was a 86 or 85.5mm wide BB. The benefit of that is you’ve got more surface area for welding.
“So we knew we wanted those two things and then it was a case of joining everything together to that and making sure we had enough material and enough in the right places to weld on to those areas.
“Then there’s the seat tube. The risk with oversizing the tubes and using this hard a metal is that you lose that famous comfortable steel ride. Although this is a performance product first and foremost, we know we still want to get that steel ride feel and a lot of that comes through the seatpost. What we’re doing with the seatpost is using a swaged tube. It will be a 35mm tube at the bottom and we’ll swage it to 31.8 at the top.
“And then also we’ll swage the seat tube flat at the bottom bracket, for even more stiffness. People imagine the back end is moving but you’ve got two triangles: they aren’t going to move, whatever you do. And then you’ve got the chainstays, they are very important for keeping it stiff. Traditionally Reynolds only offered ovalised chainstays, a standard chainstay, and they’re good, they’re proven, they’re tested, but I wanted to use a round chainstay.
“So that’s the overall concept of the frame – lots of swaging, lots of ovalising and the right tubes in the right place.”
It seems obvious that the plans are to keep developing the material quickly as a result of direct rider feedback; the beauty of steel being there are no massive mould costs, testing rigs and material analysis – this is just making bikes one at a time from the ground up. The teams at Reynolds and Genesis seem genuinely excited about the prospect of seeing the bike being improved and developed further.
Dominic looks forward to the challenge: “In terms of tweaking it, I think it’s fair to say we have some options. We can keep evolving it based on feedback and that’s part of the advantage compared to carbon.”
The next step for Dominic and the Genesis project is to get the riders out there and using the frames. By all accounts it’s something that they are very keen and happy to do – the proof of the pudding and all that. This is a team with plenty of knowledge and enthusiasm to make the Genesis project fly, and as Keith from Reynolds says, it appears that the time for steel is right.
“If we’d done this five or six years ago, I don’t think it would have had quite the same impact. So many people are into steel again as a material and to me that probably makes people think: forget the fact it’s an old material.
“They start thinking: actually, it makes sense – it rides well and I think that’s what this story is about.”